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The Raptors and Toronto are learning how to adjust to life on the mountaintop

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The Raptors won the championship, and Toronto celebrated. Now the Raptors are working to re-discover who they are after the departure of Kawhi — and the city has to figure that out too.

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NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Something that’s been lost in all of the discourse surrounding Wednesday’s loss to the Clippers is how fucking good the Raptors’ throwback jerseys looked. Not to mention the court — the classic Raptor? All that rich silver and purple? Come on!

Looking at these designs now, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time I thought the original logo was corny. And yet I remember that in the ‘90s (before I ever really cared about NBA basketball), seeing my friends in those purple hats and shirts always induced a little twinge of secondhand embarrassment. The logo seemed like a gaudy mix of cartoon goofiness and try-hard jocky self-seriousness. Why was that dinosaur so ripped? Plus, everyone knew the Raptors never actually won anything. Even when I started following NBA basketball, I quietly preferred the sleek, anonymous design of the new jerseys to the old aesthetic. To me, the retro imagery felt tethered to an era of the team’s history that was maybe better left unreferenced.

But last year, something shifted. On nights when the team wore throwback jerseys, I found myself appreciating the strange, improbable vibrancy of the colour scheme, the way the Raptor’s lower claws poked out of its dinner-roll sneakers. I know I’m not the only person who experienced this shift. As an inveterate thrift store shopper, I used to find so much early 2000s Raptors gear at Value Village that it barely even registered. Once Kawhi joined the team, it became much harder to find vintage merch, and since the championship win you can absolutely forget about finding a 1995 team sweatshirt anywhere but eBay. Now that the Raptors are world champions, wearing their vintage gear feels like a prize unto itself. The throwback jerseys trade on this feeling; the sight of, say, OG Anunoby in a royal purple shirt now triggers a warm wave of phantom nostalgia in me.

A championship changes the symbolic order of things. Now that the Raptors are untethered from the narrative of infinite, inevitable loss that dogged them for decades, I can see that classic logo for what it is: a very funny, charmingly furious dinosaur who is somehow able to dribble an intact basketball with claws that are too sharp to properly fit into his shoes. From this vantage point, I can recognize that my feelings about the old aesthetic had very little to do with the image itself and much more to do with the narrative that it represented — the disappointing past and the uncertain future it evoked. The fact that all the struggle and strangeness of the cartoon-dinosaur era ultimately lead to last year’s transcendent Finals recasts the image. With the context rearranged, I am finally able to encounter the Raptor in the present, interpret it for myself.

So Wednesday night wasn’t all bad. I loved those jerseys and I loved that court and I loved, as everyone else did, watching those glowing footprints light up across it, tracing the path of The Shot. I loved the dopamine-infused adrenaline rush of all the pregame ceremony, the stirring video montage with its surging energy. I loved how it felt to watch Kawhi Leonard embrace Kyle Lowry in front of a cheering crowd.

Through all of it I couldn’t help but think of this past February, when DeMar DeRozan came to play his first game in Toronto since the team traded him to the Spurs. The tribute they ran for him had a similar tone, tenor and rising emotional line as the Kawhi video, but unlike this past Wednesday, the game that followed was so charged with symmetry and symbolism it felt almost too literal. That game felt impossibly continuous with all the wildly outsized emotion that preceded it: the cameras trained on DeMar’s face as he watched footage of his own journey, the standing ovation no one seemed to want to end. By the last 20 seconds, when Kyle Lowry stole the ball from his best friend and handed it off to Kawhi Leonard for a dunk that secured their victory, the narrative surrounding the game seemed to have dissolved completely into its actual structure.

As a poet, I liked this porousness. As a fan, it made perfect sense. I’ve written a great deal already about how, before they became champions, the defining experience of loving the Raptors was a kind of borderless symmetry; the collapse of past, present and future into one infinite, anxious echo. Before Kawhi, the accumulated pressure of the team’s previous failures could exert so much force on your experience of watching a game that you might mute the TV every time they faltered, just to give yourself a little relief. After the team acquired Leonard, things shifted into a more hopeful gear, but the team was still so driven toward the ultimate goal of a championship that each win or loss echoed with outsized significance, extending so far beyond the present moment that it dissolved.

The NBA is, of course, powered by story. The sheer volume of games and highlights and plays and clips and statistics can get overwhelming even for the most dedicated follower; it can be difficult to find a foothold in the avalanche of data. A clear narrative arc — about a player, a team, a city — gives you something to grab onto, to work, organizes the seemingly endless field of information into something like a straight line, helps you divine some meaning from the chaos.

Until they won the championship, the Raptors have always been so inextricable from the story of themselves that the borders between narrative and actual gameplay felt almost shockingly porous. Whether they were supposed to be doomed to lose or making a historic championship run, there was always a clear through line that ran through everything, gave everyone a clear way to interpret any individual instance of failure or success.

But since the beginning of the 2019-20 season, the Raptors have shifted unpredictably between two settings: unfathomably, impossibly electrified, or so completely deflated that watching them feels like having an uncanny dream about a basketball game where everything seems to be moving at half-speed. In this light, it makes sense that Kawhi’s prodigal return did not have the emotional continuity of DeMar’s — instead of smoothly continuous, the whole day felt disjointed, difficult to reconcile with itself. The game fit perfectly into this pattern of no pattern at all — the wild, outsized emotion that preceded it juxtaposed uncomfortably against the strange, deflated energy inside the actual game. The outcome felt like appropriate punctuation for the Raps’ recent, awkward run — all those wins that felt like losses, losses that felt like wins.

It’s been interesting to watch the spate of media opinions that have come out in the wake of this most recent stretch. As long as I’ve been following the Raptors, there has always been such a clear story surrounding the team that the coverage of them feels choral — everyone singing the same song in their own voice. But since Wednesday’s game there’s been no real consensus. Some reporters cast the team’s loss in a warm light, centering the ring ceremony; others expressed a clear (if possibly misdirected) frustration. Many more tried to parse a tricky middle path, overdetermining the Raptors’ loss with a wide range of potential causes that all made sense, but somehow didn’t seem sufficient to explain the current vibe.

It makes sense that the response to this game would be mixed and kind of tepid, because it’s hard to be too fervent when you’re writing into a wide open question. Daniel’s post from yesterday evokes some of this confusion: is this team good or bad, and when will we get to find out? This is the first time in a long time that the Raptors are not playing into a predetermined narrative. It makes sense that we aren’t really sure how to read them, what to feel. Even when the old story was bad, it was familiar, gave us a clear way to read the team’s progress or lack thereof.

For my part, I think the Raptors are a team with tenacity and heart that will ultimately carry them through this season and into the playoffs in fine, fun-to-watch form. I agree with Nick Nurse and Kyle Lowry and Sean Woodley that things will probably straighten out in the long run once the team has some time to settle back into itself. It’s only December, slumps and losses happen, and in the bigger picture the team is doing very well — far better than many people thought they would after Kawhi’s departure.

All that said, Daniel’s point from yesterday is also absolutely true. There is a real, genuinely anxiety-inducing possibility that perhaps the team won’t fall perfectly into place this year — that they will not be able to rein in the strange, mercurial energy that has defined this season thus far, that they could struggle to convert it into consistent gameplay that serves and suits their strengths.

But I am not here to predict the future. I am here to interpret the present, and more than anything else, I think this moment of uncertainty — the slightly off-balance feeling that comes of being untethered — is a strange, unfamiliar kind of gift. Think about it. Most of us have lifelong goals, impossibly outsized things we have been dreaming and striving to achieve for as long as we can remember. But few of us are lucky enough to achieve those goals and then face the strange problem of continuing to live past that success.

The elation and vindication of the championship was, of course, its own reward. But what comes after it, too, has a wild and unpredictable kind of value. We get to watch the development of Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet and Anunoby, the emergence (out of nowhere!) of players like Terence Davis and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, even Nick Nurse’s evolution from first-year coach into whatever his more established form will be. I do not claim to know what is going to happen to any of these people, but I do know that the championship has given them an open space to explore and evolve without the crushing weight of expectation that might limit or overdetermine their performance if the Raptors were still striving for that ultimate goal above all else.

I don’t know what’s going to happen to the Raptors throughout the rest of this season. But watching Wednesday’s game renewed my feeling that there is new room in their story for all kinds of strangeness and surprise. Kawhi didn’t just carry the team to an unprecedented achievement — he brought them into this space beyond it, this uncertain juncture way out past any predictable narrative. Not everyone gets to visit this place, but the Raptors do now, and so do we, right alongside them. This gift is harder to represent in a video or a light show, but it’s just as valuable as anything else Kawhi did for Toronto last year. It is a tremendous and terrifying opportunity to encounter yourself in the clear, open present — freed from all the old stories about yourself, shockingly vulnerable and new. The only thing I know about this year is that, as Raptors fans, we have the unique opportunity to see the thing we love for what it truly is — whatever that turns out to be.